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By Charles Prepolec
Peter Cushing and Sherlock Holmes: An Overview
Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen by numerous performers. The range is rather varied and contains both the hopelessly miscast  and the memorable. Peter Cushing falls in with the latter group. Never before or since, has Holmes been portrayed by a more gentle or respected actor. Known in the industry for his remarkable ability with props and his professionalism in the worst of circumstances, Peter Cushing was an actor's actor. In his personal life he was, by all accounts, a very private man and devoted husband to his beloved wife Helen. Amongst his hobbies was the creation of minature theatrical sets, as well as the collecting of model soldiers,and of course he had a deep love of books. I like to think that Conan Doyle would have embraced Peter Cushing as something of a kindred spirit!

In Sherlockian film sequence, Cushing follows on the heels of Rathbone, whereas in the medium that is television he follows Douglas Wilmer. In both places he does rather well. In neither case is he the perfect Holmes, but one we can enjoy and appreciate nonetheless. His amazing professionalism has always made Cushing a joy to behold in any of his varied roles. Although indelibly linked with
Hammer Films in the sixties, Peter Cushing appeared in a total of 91 films and made numerous television appearances.
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Peter Wilton Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, England on May 26, 1913. He went into acting in the mid-1930’s and tried his luck in Hollywood in 1939. While there he appeared in seven films including The Man in The Iron Mask with Louis Hayward as well as Laurel and Hardy’s A Chump at Oxford. By 1942 he was back in England but did not appear in another film until 1947. In 1942 Peter met and married the woman who would be the one love of his life, Helen Beck. Cushing’s well known loyalty and devotion to Helen became legendary. During those lean years, Peter supplemented his earnings by designing scarves for a textile company. In 1947 through a little luck and persistence, he appeared as Osric in Olivier’s film version of Hamlet. By 1951, Cushing had become England’s first television star. Between 1951 and 1956, he appeared in 23 television plays and in 1955 he was given the Guild Of Television Award for Best Actor ( England’s equivalent of an Emmy). Although not yet an international star, Peter was extremely well known to English television viewers for efforts that included the ground breaking production of Orwell’s 1984. His big screen success began in 1956 with his appearance as Baron Victor Von Frankenstein in Hammer Film’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Peter’s association with Hammer Films as well as co-star Christopher Lee spanned the next 20 years and made him an international film star.
Peter Cushing’s first film experience with Sherlock Holmes began in the 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. This version of The Hound has the distinction of being the first Holmes film to be made in colour. Although not a financial success for Hammer, this film contains one of Cushing’s finest performances. As a Doyle fan and owner of issues of the Strand Magazine, Cushing insisted on proper clothing and accessories for the detective but unfortunately not an authentic script. Cushing comments in his autobiography on his look for the role:
Hammer Films had made its name in horror films, and this was no exception. The script became rather heavy with the typical gothic and horror elements introduced by Hammer including a sacrificial dagger, a lusty gypsy type wench and a tarantula (?). Even with these elements the film easily ranks as one of the top three versions of The Hound, with Cushing's performance being a distinct highlight.. The other two versions being the 1939 Rathbone version and BBC TV’s Hound also featuring Cushing. Casting is exceptional with Andre Morell (as the first Watson to break from the Nigel Bruce mold)  and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry.
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Interestingly, Lee would later play Holmes in the film Das Hälsband das Tödes or The Deadly Necklace and again on television in two telefilms, he also played Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The physical aspects such as costume, sets and lush Technicolor photography are exceptional and typical of Hammer films of this era. Critics had this to say: 
Cushing appeared in many more Hammer films including most of their Frankenstein series and notably as Professor Van Helsing in the Dracula film series. Other Hammer film appearances included The Mummy, The Gorgon, She, The Vampire Lovers and The Sword of Sherwood Forest. For film audiences he also brought Dr. Who to the silver screen in two features. For Amicus Productions he appeared in a number of their anthology thrillers such as Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and the excellent The House That Dripped Blood. In the midst of all these films he would once again portray Holmes, but this time for television.
In 1964, as part of a series entitled The Detectives, the BBC presented an hour long version of The Speckled Band featuring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes. The success of the one episode resulted in a further series of twelve episodes in 1965 under the simple title ofSherlock Holmes, these also featured Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson. This series was well received and in 1968 when a new series was proposed, Wilmer refused to return due to the short production schedules. The role, after being refused by John Neville, went to Peter Cushing. To maintain the rights from the Doyle Estate, the series had to go out as a direct sequel. Nigel Stock was retained to provide some air of continuity.
This new series of 15 stories (16 episodes including a two-part Hound) was aired as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in the fall of 1968. This series was to have been the most costly and ambitious series devoted to the detective. Cushing was paid at a rate of 735 Guineas per program. Top notch guest stars were to be used including Orson Welles, Peter Ustinov, Sean Connery  and George Sanders. Unfortunately, due to the massive budget overrun on the The Hound, this never happened. The series almost immediately fell behind shooting schedule due to typical English weather making the rest of the shooting schedule hurried and extremely condensed. The episode The Dancing Men, was even broadcast before the final editing could be completed. Peter Cushing, in his autobiography comments on the difficulties he faced:
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The BBC also came under fire for excessive violence in this series. The rationale being that with Peter Cushing aboard, the public expected greater elements of horror and violence. All that said however, the series managed to retain a very distinct Canonical flavour through the attention to detail given by Cushing in his efforts to present an authentic Holmes. Although authenticity created other problems for Cushing, as he explains:
In the end, the series consisted of 16 -  50 minute episodes including a two-part Hound. The stories in release order were The Second Stain, A Study in Scarlet, The Dancing Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Greek Interpreter, The Naval Treaty, Thor Bridge, The Musgrave Ritual, Black Peter, Wisteria Lodge, Shoscombe Old Place, The Solitary Cyclist, The Sign of Four and The Blue Carbuncle. Having viewed the surviving episodes of HOUN, SIGN, STUD, BOSC and BLUE, I can happily say that I found them all to be entertaining and highly worthwhile episodes. The Hound in particular was an excellent production with Cushing putting in a better performance than he did a decade previously in  the Hammer Films version. The Hound was at long last released to UK format DVD and VHS by the BBC in 2002.
In January of 1971, Helen Cushing died. Her passing was a terrible blow from which Peter never truly recovered. Depression very nearly was the end of Cushing at this time. As a sort of therapy, he threw himself into his film work, appearing in no less than twelve films in twelve months. Later, in the mid-1970’s Peter’s film career began to wind down. In 1975 he turned down the opportunity to play Holmes in the Broadway production of The Crucifer of Blood due to his constitution not being up to the rigors of stagework. Charlton Heston would later play the part in Los Angeles with Jeremy Brett as his Watson. Cushing’s most notable film appearance of the period was in Star Wars as the icy cold Grand Moff Tarkin, introducing this delightful actor to a whole new generation of fnas. His next connection with Holmes would shortly commence. After Star Wars, Cushing went to Canada to work on The Uncanny, along the way he stopped over in Los Angeles to appear in the ABC Television production of The Great Houdinis. This was Peter’s first American made - for - TV movie and he appeared as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Maureen O’Sullivan played Mrs. Conan Doyle. The telefilm also featured Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini, Bill Bixby, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Vance, Nina Foch, Jack Carter, Clive Revill and Wilfrid Hyde-White. While not the least bit  like Conan Doyle in a physical sense, Cushing turned in a fair performance in what was essentially a bit part.
After that Cushing appeared in but 10 more films, included among them are Arabian Adventure and the entertaining House of the Long Shadows with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. Cushing’s last connection with Holmes was in the 1984 television film The Masks of Death for Tyburn Productions. I expect it must have felt very much like a return to his Hammer days, with Roy Ward Baker directing him once again. Although 71 at the time, Peter still gave an energetic and authentic portrayal of the master detective. John Mills was brought in as a very debonair and intelligent Watson while Anton Diffring gave us a typically sinister German villain. The story is made up from whole cloth and has our hero foiling a  pre-WWI German plot with the assistance of Irene Adler. Of Cushing’s performance The Observer noted that he “still brings great subtlety and dignity to the role.” Plans for a followup entitled The Abbot’s Cry were cancelled due to Peter’s health problems. After The Masks of Death, he appeared in the less than noteworthy Biggles.

In 1986 Peter published his life story in the wonderfully self effacing
Peter Cushing, An Autobiography, which he followed up in 1988  with Past Forgetting - Memoirs of the Hammer Years. Both of these volumes are highly entertaining and well worth the reading. In 1989 Peter Cushing was presented with an OBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his lifelong contribution to the British Film Industry.

Peter Cushing will always be remembered for his horror roles as well as Sherlock Holmes. Considered charming, unfailingly kindhearted and truly talented by his peers, Peter will be sorely missed.

Peter Cushing passed away on Thursday August 11, 1994 in a hospice in Canterbury, England at the age of 81. After 23 years, he was finally reunited with his beloved Helen.


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For further information on Peter Cushing, please visit the
Peter Cushing Museum & Association
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"Tony Hinds, the producer, said how professional I was to have lost weight especially to portray the guant detective. I'm afraid I hadn't been as conscientious as all that - 'it was Spain what done it!' - I'd been out there making John Paul Jones, and a bout of dysentery had thinned me down."
“Holmes is a difficult part to play, but Mr. Peter Cushing makes an interesting attempt.”  - The Times of March 30, 1959

“Peter Cushing is a forceful and eager Sherlock Holmes.”
- T
he New York Herald Tribune of July 4, 1959

“... a living, breathing Holmes - the best yet.” - 
Newsweek
“I was kept busy for the next nine months, making a series of 15 Sherlock Holmes adventures with the excellent and humorous Nigel Stock playing Dr. Watson. It proved a popular program, but I was most displeased with my performances. Helen’s condition was a constant worry, diverting my concentration, and of course, I missed her presence in the control box, which gave me self-confidence I lacked. She was also my sternest critic, and I felt lost without her guidance. Adding to my anxieties, the BBC’s schedule went a little haywire.  The original plan had been ten days’ rehearsal, plus recording, for each installment, including location shooting. Unfortunately, our British climate had not been taken into account, and rain often “stopped play”, losing us valuable hours while we waited for it to stop and leaving little time for the interiors. The series began transmission before we’d completed the full complement, so we were pressured into getting them ready to keep up with the weekly demand. I can never give my best under such conditions, and to my mind, it was apparent on the screen.”
“…when I had to smoke – the churchwarden pipes always made me feel violently sick. I rather envy those who do not turn pale shaded oblivious green, but puff away with such sweet content and serenity. “Holmes” being an inveterate smoker of the things, I had to endure this nausea on top of everything else, and the irony of it was that I became Pipeman of the Year, awarded by the Briar Pipe Trade Association, who presented me with a miniature model poised on a little black plinth, my name engraved alongside notables who had won it previously, such as Harold Wilson, Warren Mitchell and Andrew Cruickshank.”
Peter was much loved, not least by me; film lovers all over the world will grieve his loss deeply, and I've lost a wonderful friend. There will be no more phone calls from him with all those hilarious stories. I shall miss his wisdom. I shall miss him.
- Christopher Lee
Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes
Hammer-ing The Hound
Holmes and the BBC
German Press Book
German Press Book
Conan Doyle and Cushing's Last Bow
References :
- Holmes of the Movies by David Stuart Davies - 1978 Bramhall House
- Peter Cushing: The Gentle Man of Horror and his 91 Films by Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson - 1992 McFarland & Company
- Peter Cushing, An Autobiography - 1986 Weidenfeld & Nicolson
- Peter Cushing, A Celebration - 1995 Whitstable Museum & Gallery
- Peter Cushing  by Donald Fearney - 1996 Donald Fearney Productions
- Peter Cushing, An Autobiography and Past Forgetting - 1999 Midnight Marquee Press Inc.
- The Television Sherlock Holmes by Peter Haining - 1993 Virgin Books
- The Peter Cushing Companion by David Miller - 2000 Reynolds & Hearn Ltd